BY NEENA SATIJA, TEXAS TRIBUNE
In the heart of Texasâ€™ mineral-rich Eagle Ford Shale, freshwater isnâ€™t the only precious resource for both oil companies and local communities. Brackish groundwater aquifers are also becoming increasingly valuable â€” as potential drinking water supplies, and also as locations for disposing wastewater from drilling and hydraulic fracturing.
“This is potentially a big issue because it could be precedent-setting,â€ said state Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, the chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee. Fraser criticized Marathonâ€™s position, saying that state law does give groundwater districts authority to challenge well applications through contested-case hearings â€“ drawn-out processes resembling trials, which are held before an administrative law judge.
“Weâ€™ve got a bullâ€™s eye on us,â€ said Greg Sengelmann, general manager of the Gonzales County Underground Water Conservation District. “Everybody wants water from our district.â€ Now that cities like San Antonio are pulling water out of the Carrizo-Wilcoxâ€™s brackish portion and treating it to potable standards, Sengelmann said itâ€™s important that the district make sure its brackish portion is protected along with the freshwater portion.
So the district, along with many others in South Texas, is protesting nearly every permit for a new wastewater well in front of the Railroad Commission unless companies agree to install them more safely. The idea is not to end their construction altogether, Sengelmann said, but to seek safeguards beyond what the Railroad Commission currently requires, including better cement casing to prevent wastewater from migrating into drinking water supplies.
Thatâ€™s what the district sought for Marathonâ€™s well. But the parties failed to reach a compromise, and Marathon asked the Railroad Commission to throw out the complaint, alleging that the district did not meet the threshold of being a person or a local government “affectedâ€ by the well.
Thatâ€™s partly, the driller said, because the well lies four miles outside of the districtâ€™s boundaries. But Marathon also argues that no groundwater district meets the threshold, because the Railroad Commission alone has the authority to protect groundwater from potential contamination from oil and gas activities. The ability of groundwater districts to protest wells undermines the Railroad Commissionâ€™s rules, “creating uncertainty and added costs for applicants,â€ Marathon argues.
A hearing examiner for the Railroad Commission rejected Marathonâ€™s argument. It said the groundwater district was not interfering with the application but “merely trying to be heard at the commission.â€ The company appealed, and on Thursday morning, the three railroad commissioners will take up the issue.
Groundwater districts say that a vote in favor of Marathon could put water supplies at risk.
“Thereâ€™s so damn many of these things, particularly in the Eagle Ford Shale,â€ said J.D. Head, an Austin-based attorney who represents the Wintergarden Groundwater Conservation District, which encompasses Dimmit, Zavala and LaSalle counties.
“And [the Railroad Commission doesnâ€™t] have a huge staff. Thereâ€™s a potential for applications that get rubber-stamped but have problems with them, because theyâ€™re not being vetted.â€ The district has filed a brief to the Railroad Commission in support of the Gonzales County district.
The Gonzales County district also believes it has prevented potential contamination issues. Sengelmann said that in a separate case, a Railroad Commission hearing examiner actually threw out a disposal well application after the district showed it could impact brackish water supplies that San Antonio plans to use.
Oil and gas industry groups say water districtsâ€™ fears are overblown, and that state regulators do enough to protect groundwater from contamination. The Railroad Commission recently proposed rules that, among other provisions, would strengthen requirements for disposal well casings.
“The Railroad Commission does a good job of taking care of what theyâ€™re supposed to take care of,â€ said Kenny Jordan, executive director of the Houston-based Association of Energy Service Companies. The group is one of several in the industry â€” including the powerful Texas Oil and Gas Association â€” that have filed briefs in support of Marathonâ€™s position.
On the other hand, Sengelmann, the general manager of the Gonzales district, only wishes his district had started protesting wells earlier than 2013, when efforts began in earnest.